Friday, December 28, 2012

Make No Mistake, Corporate Ed Reform is Hurting Kids

Corporate Education Reform hurts children.  This truth needs to be said a million times over.  No longer can we allow reformers to hide behind the rhetoric of reform and ignore the realities.  Words like "poverty is not destiny" "high expectations" "quality school options" and "choice" all mask the very real impact of these reforms. There are consequences to the disruption of school closings, to purposeful disinvestment in neighborhood schools, to layoffs of experienced educators, to the haphazard expansion of largely low-quality charters. 

As most who read this blog know, I work in a psychiatric hospital in Chicago. Unlike many teachers out there who see only their small window of the reform world, I get to see the cross-section.  Students cycle through my program so quickly (too quickly, thanks to massive cuts in mental health services) that I hear dozens of stories a week from all over the city and surrounding suburbs.  And what's happening out there is beyond heart-breaking, it is wrong.  Kids have come in to the hospital with massive anxiety, depression, and aggression related, in part, to school policies.  I have students who report fear of “getting jumped” on the way to schools across town after their neighborhood school was shut down.  I've had kids with school refusal due to the very real fear of a dangerous bus route through rival neighborhoods. Young people are afraid of the increases in violence and gang activity as kids from all parts of the city are thrust together in schools whose only response to the rage is zero tolerance lockdown.  There is no healing, just ignoring and punishing the problem, pushing the fights off of school grounds.  Almost every child I work with from the neighborhoods targeted for the brunt of school reform has symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.  They have difficulty sitting still, are quick to react to any perceived threat with violence or aggression, cannot concentrate on school work, and have come to hate the experience of school.  And yet all they get from school leadership is school closures, fired teachers, and false choices.

Kids feel abandoned as they lose the ties to trusted teachers and school staff, many drifting off into truancy and drop-out.   My kids have complained about teachers who “don’t get it” speaking about the unfair practice of putting poorly-trained teachers with no education experience and no understanding of their communities’ issues in their classrooms.  As reform sweeps through my city with its massive layoffs, it disproportionally affects teachers of color, the teachers who are most likely to connect with these children.  As a special education teacher, it is especially shocking how many uncertified and inexperienced teachers serve our students with special needs. Why this isn't a national scandal, I will never understand...

My kids with IEPs get shuffled around schools as neighborhood schools shut, charters push them out, and receiving schools must take time to get to know the child anew, delaying services.  I have kids who have been to four different schools in as many years, and must keep changing schools as schools are shut down down or turned-around.  How many children have we lost who slip through the cracks as they bounce around school options?  Is anyone keeping track?

I've met kids who complain "I was in a class of 39 kids with no textbooks.  Why should I stay? They don't care about us."  Kids understand on a deep level that they are being treated like disposable people as their neighborhood schools are being grossly under-resourced and under-staffed in order to justify further school closures. Purposefully starving a school, underutilized or not, to serve your political agenda is criminal.   There are children suffering in those schools. 

And my kids hate school.  When I hear the stories of what they are being asked to do all day I don't blame them.  Any joy and excitement that teachers used to bring to the classroom is being destroyed by pressures from high-stakes standarized tests.  The class project bulletin board is replaced by a data wall.  The music, gym, art, and after-school activities are being exchanged for longer days full of test prep, rote memorization, and disembodied facts, formulas, and vocabulary practice.  Kids in low-income schools no longer read novels, they now do reading comprehension worksheets focused on discreet skills like "compare/contrast" or "main idea".  They don't fall in love with characters or ideas, they answer comprehension questions and write out short essays.  They don't do projects and experiments, go on field trips, or paint, draw, imagine, or question. They take tests.  I know I hate teaching that way just as much as the kids hate to learn that way.  It is boring as hell and you have to choose to either crack down on restrictive discipline or you live in chaos as kids rebel.    

My charter kids are lovely, smart, capable young men and women.  But I worry about all my sicker, poorer kids being left behind.  Negative behaviors are being concentrated in certain schools.  Peer effects matter greatly.  What a joy it is to have the higher-performing kids in my class at the hospital.  They change the whole atmosphere of the room.  They can support the struggling students and raise thoughtful questions.  This is why socioeconomic integration matters.  My charter kids are almost without exception at the higher end of the free/reduced lunch bracket with families better able to support them while the kids who struggle the most are those coming from the deepest, most debilitating poverty.  Racial integration matters, too, for my students of color in the magnet and selective enrollment schools are having better experiences than charters or neighborhood schools thanks to having access to the funding that follows white students. 

[As an aside, google "school integration" and look at "images".  They are ALL in black and white because we stopped talking about this issue decades ago.]

Meanwhile, all this focus on the corporate reforms of school closures, charter expansion, and teacher/school accountability means we are not investing in other types of reform, most notably anti-poverty programs.  The number of kids I have met who are suffereing from trauma, abuse, PTSD, depression, anxiety, anger issues which could have been prevented by working towards eradicating poverty is staggering.  School leaders' "choice" to focus solely on corporate reforms at the expense of all other types of change means more kids must suffer.  I am tired of the tragic stories I hear. 

And I'm thinking ahead to the unknown, but likely large numbers (60? 100? 120?) of schools heading for closure at the end of the year here in Chicago.  I am bracing myself for the repercussions of chaos in the coming months.  Imagine potentially hundreds, maybe thousands of kids with IEPs needing to find new appropriate placements.  How will receiving schools follow children's IEPs in a timely manner?  How will they ensure they have the right amount of staff?  What will happen to my kids with no parents, in the child welfare system, if their school closes?  DCFS tries to meet their needs, but they are not staffed anywhere near the level necessary to manage a mass number of displaced children.  The charters, even if they somehow enroll these kids, will not and do not keep them.  They will bounce back to yet another school, having to start over yet again.

And those proponents of choice brag about closing down "under-performing charters" the same as neighborhood schools as if this were a good thing!  The number one thing my students require is stability and connection.  And those are the very things which are being lost as CPS follows the corporate education reform path. Edreform's goal is a neverending cycle of chaos, with schools being opened and shut down again like shoe stores.  And this model goes against everything we know to be good for children.

Education Reform does not work.  It shuffles kids around, concentrating a few high-achievers in the choosen "miracle schools" in order to be able to market "choice", but does not actually do anything remotely innovative or even new.  And to condemn so many of those bright young charter kids to "no excuses" discipline codes makes me ill.  Why can't they get creative, progressive teaching and learning like the children of the suburbs get?   Edreform is all smoke and mirrors.  And while reformers try to spin their made-up successes, the children being left behind are being hurt, neglected, and abused like never before.

There can be no middle ground or compromise when kids are being hurt.

No more.  All that reform has taught us is that funding matters, peer groups matter, and segregation matters.  So let's tackle the real problems in schools.  What if reform was built around helping our neediest kids first: those in extreme poverty, those with special needs, those with emotional/behavioral problems?  What if education philanthropists were bragging about giving every school a library, instead of donating to a new "no excuses" charter?   What if the Gates Foundation committed to giving every school a full-time social worker instead of their odd fixation with teacher evaluations?  What if the words "integration" and "equitable funding" were as quick to roll off the tongues of the elite and powerful as the words "choice" and "charters"? 

The current education policies hurt kids.  No more discussion.  Even if EdReformers had most beautiful intentions in the world, if the uninteneded consequences cause children pain, then they must be stopped immediately.  FIRST DO NO HARM.  Only a monster would continue a course of action knowing it hurts kids...

Sunday, December 23, 2012

A "Kerfuffle" to Cover Education Reform's Greatest Secret

I am completely baffled by the recent "kerfuffle" on twitter and the blogosphere regarding the remarks of first Diane Ravitch and then later CTU president Karen Lewis discussing the tragedy in Newtown. EdReformers of all kinds are simply "outraged" over, well I'm not exactly sure, since it's not about what both Ravitch and Lewis actually wrote  Honestly, I'm too tired of this silliness to write it out in full here so please see what the great Jersey Jazzman said here and here as well as Peter Hart's piece on this insanity.)

It all started on twitter with David Rosenberg, a TFA vice president, who was absolutely shocked at the "reprehensible" language that Diane Ravitch used by mentioning the words "union" and "tenure" in her tribute to Sandy Hook teachers.

Originally from Kenzo Shibata, found on Jersery Jazzman's blog

As a business school graduate with plenty of experience in education PR and "Online Strategy," Rosenberg likely had a very specific goal in mind with his initial tweet.  He is, after all, an expert in "online strategy".  Like everything else TFA does, being the masters of PR that they are, I'm sure this was a well-planned defense to deflect attention from Ravitch's point.  As others have pointed out, it doesn't look good to have a history of bashing the very people now being lauded as national heroes.

But then things got really interesting when Karen Lewis, head of the Chicago Teachers Union chimed in.  Suddenly, we had Andrew Rotherham and others twisting Lewis' words into "Teach for America Kills"

And it is Karen Lewis' words which I would like to examine today, since those seem to be the ones that most offended the delicate reformers' sensibilities. She writes [emphasis mine],
Diane, et. al.
I have read these posts (alas I do not do Twitter), and I am struck by the lack of authenticity by the Rosenberg comment. Diane has been at the forefront of the desire to lift up the beleaguered profession of teaching in each and every post. She has drawn the connections between people who wouldn’t think of sending their children to public schools and their policies that are destroying the common good. Anyone who doesn’t know that in the marrow of their bones, doesn’t read her blog.
On the other, the educrats who do not agree with her, read her posts, too so as to keep abreast of her thoughts and are ready to pounce if they see an opening. There might have been a time where “politicizing” tragic events, especially mass shootings was thought to be in poor taste. That has changed with the 24/7 news cycle that continues to focus far too much time and energy on the perpetrator of the massacre than that of our precious victims. Rosenberg’s “false outrage” needs to be checked. That same false outrage should show itself when policies his colleagues support kill and disenfranchise children from schools across this nation. We in Chicago have been the victims of their experiments on our children since the current secretary of Education “ran” CPS.
The accolades heaped on a group of education missionaries, (hopefully with beautiful intent on the part of the TFA teachers) cannot go unchallenged. Diane does that. Day in and day out, she champions rank and file educators and the hard work they do. She has a special place in heart for those who see the value of the classroom and not as stepping stone to a more lucrative career or the opportunism of self-promoters like Michelle Rhee who, with her lies about her own classroom experience has catapulted herself into the welcoming arms of those who hate unions, tenure and anything else that provides due process and gives teachers real voice.
To David Rosenberg, Shanda! Shame on you for such a paranoid rant. If you had nothing of which to be guilty, those words would have rolled off your back.
To Diane – Keep speaking the truth!
Karen Lewis
As a quick aside, of COURSE, Rosenberg's statement lacked authenticity.  This is his job. He was simply managing the bad PR he felt was coming out indirectly against his organization and his reformer acquaintances.  

But it is this critique of Rosenberg's "false outrage" which does not extend to outrage over children being hurt and communities being disenfranchised due to Ed Reform that seems to be the biggest reformy rallying point.  Andrew Rotherham distorted Lewis' quote by inserting [Teach for America] into a line where it does not belong.  Campbell Brown is shocked that "Teach for America kills" after reading Rotherham's distortions.  When read in full, it is clear that was not the intent of Lewis' remarks.

But why are all these reformy people really so very very upset?  Why have they gone into full-blown attack mode over a few silly words?  It is because Lewis points us to the very real and very dangerous, even deadly, effects of the bad education policy these reformers push.   If the extent of the pain and suffering caused by "reform" were to get out into public consciousness, as it seemed likely to do in the aftermath of Sandy Hook, Corporate Education Reform would crumble to the ground.  Sandy Hook challenged the very foundation of their claims regarding unions, tenured teachers, teacher quality, and the real problems in education.  And their impatient desire to attack the wrong problems has had a very real and negative impact on children.  It turns out Americans don't like stories of children dying due to violence.  Too many people were making the connections to the largely overlooked hundreds of black and brown children dying due to gun violence with the middle class kids who lost their lives in Connecticut.  The public was getting too close to the truth that education reform was contributing to the violence problem in this country.  This truth is education reform's greatest secret.

Those of us in the trenches see the repercussions of Ed Reform daily.  We know how teaching and learning has been compromised in the search for better test scores.  We know the trauma that school closures and mass staff firings inflicts on kids.  We know what happens when ignorant support of "choice" sends a child over gang boundaries or on unsafe bus routes.  We have seen the increasing devastation wrought by growing poverty and how ignoring it is hurting children.  We've talked to our students, heard their fear and their anger.  However, the greater public is still being spoon-fed "miracle school" stories, gushing love for KIPP and their "grit"-my-way-out-of-poverty line, the constant photo ops and Op-Eds praising reform, and the misinformation campaigns occurring around the country.  They do NOT know what we do.

So when Lewis highlighted the deadly repercussions of school reform in Chicago, where we have had these policies for even longer than most places and we know, intimately, the cruelty being inflicted on children and schools, it frightens reformers at the deepest level.  It is not a coincidence that CORE (the progressive caucus which currently runs the Chicago Teachers Union of which Karen Lewis is the head) arose in Chicago.  It is no coincidence that the historic teachers strike happened here.  We have already seen some of the worst of the effects of these policies and have had long enough to get really angry. 

Here was my response to Lewis' remarks:

Lewis was not speaking about TFA specifically, but about the Corporate Ed Reform movement as a whole with which TFA is closely aligned. And yes, the corporate education reforms plaguing Chicago for the past 10+ years have cost precious children their lives. The chaos caused by callous school closings, leading to sending children across the city to “choice” schools crossing gang boundaries has indeed led to increases in youth violence and yes, even deaths. The tragic beating death of Derrion Albert in 2009 is one prime example

It is the utter ignorance and arrogance of education reformers, including and especially TFA, which allows terrible policies to get passed. Churn in teaching staff after closings and turnarounds is dangerous to kids who need stability. Charter schools do not serve the neediest students and instead these kids are concentrated in schools purposefully underfunded and neglected causing ever more severe behavior issues in schools given fewer resources to help. Our district buys new tests and “data systems” instead of hiring more social workers, counselors, and nurses which my kids desperately need. Ed Reform creates environments of fear and stress with terrible new evaluation systems and sometimes even pay tied to test scores leaving the people who work directly with the children with less emotional energy to devote to them. Ed Reform also pushes more inexperienced, poorly trained teachers-as the war on veteran teachers, tenure, and unions continues-on the children who need experienced, well-trained teachers the most.”
Karen Lewis, as a teacher for decades and herself coming from one of the neighborhoods hit hardest by the instability of "reform," knows all this too well.  She, like many of us teachers, parents, students, and community members who fight, have had first-hand experience.  (For more on the damage done by education reform in Chicago, I encourage everyone here to look at the work of Dr. Pauline Lipman out of University of Illinois-Chicago. Here is her latest book and one relevant paper.)


So I leave you with a message.  Attention all you outraged EdReformers: David Rosenberg, Cambell Brown, Andrew Rotherham, Jonathan Alter, Wendy Kopp, Justin Hamilton and anyone else feigning righteous anger over this kerfuffle, children are dying in Chicago.  Much of the increases in violence in this city have to do with the chaos caused by the education reforms YOU ALL advocate for.  Acknowledge that.  Write your blogs, sends angry tweets, speak out on television for THESE kids, not against made-up distractions like this twitter controversy.

Stop hiding behind your misinformation, your spin, your talking points, your complaints about tone, your phony research.  Come to where the kids are.  Listen to parents beg, plead, cry, yell, and chant to save their schools from closure.  Come to my psych hospital and hear children's actual experience of charter schools, of zero tolerance discipline, of school closures, of disinvestment in neighborhood schools, of poorly trained teachers in their classrooms.  Listen to parents and students who occupy their schools, hold sit-ins, or let themselves be arrested to stop school closures and charter expansion.

Sandy Hook reminded us all of the first thing we must remember about schools.  We must protect children above all else.  Like the Hippocratic Oath in medicine, we must "first do no harm" in our attempts to better education.  And corporate education reform IS HURTING CHILDREN.

It's time for some serious outrage over THIS reprehensible fact.  Then we can talk about the reforms our schools actually need.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Now Ed Schools Are the Problem? Change the Conversation!

In a recent paper, the AFT's national leadership advocates for a "bar exam" for educators in order to improve the quality of teacher candidates by raising standards for entry into teaching. While there were a number of noteworthy ideas in the paper, such as more time spent observing masters teachers at work and an emphasis on educators within the profession setting standards, overall, this paper is just one more idea borne out of the notion that our teaching force and the education schools which produce them are, to paraphrase Michelle Rhee, “crap.”.  It feeds directly into the oh-so-common "bad teacher" rhetoric.  The report argues that if we raise GPA requirements, make ed schools more "rigorous," set higher standards of practice, and force prospective teachers to pass intense exams in subject matter and pedagogy THEN our schools will improve.  Now, beyond the classist and racist implications of "improving" our teaching force (read whitening and drawing from higher income brackets), the very conversation itself is flawed.   And I am upset with AFT for entering this conversation. 

Don’t Feed the “Bad Teacher” Monster

This paper comes as retort to EdReformers everywhere who claim that current teacher preparation programs are creating poor quality teachers.   Just last week we heard Arne Duncan with Jeb Bush and other corporate-reform-loving friends lament that “teacher education programs are ‘part of the problem.’” He went on to say “We need to push very, very hard in schools of education." 

This whole conversation assumes, as always, that the major problem in education is the quality of our teachers.   The assumption is that too many teachers are simply sub-par individuals and that a more selective process is necessary to weed out these low-quality people from the "best and the brightest".  Although the AFT gives it a different spin, in many ways this report is the same "bad teacher" mythology peddled by EdReformers, seen on emotional display in Waiting for Superman, and put on repeat from every hedge-fund-manager/billionaire-turned-education-philanthropist out there.  It's Wendy Kopp's appeal to get "new talent" in our classrooms regardless of amount of training or experience  It’s Arne Duncan calling teacher prep programs “broken”.  The major problem, to these people, is always the individual teacher and the ed program that spawned them.  And the only way to improve schools is to recruit better people from better universities with better rankings within those schools.  And all those who do not meet these criteria must be fired and punished, because they do not have the innate qualities to be great.  And those that do? Well we should reward them for their amazing greatness. 
Let me be clear, it's not that I'm against finding ways to improve traditional teacher education programs.   I just do not believe they are “broken”.  They are not why so many teachers quit.  They are not why so many low-income schools struggle.  And they certainly have nothing to do with the so-called achievement gap. The achievement gap exists because of gross inequalities, racism, and poverty NOT as a result of low-quality teachers or their low-quality prep programs.
Besides, what has changed in recent years is the massive proliferation of fast-track alternative or online teaching degrees.  We absolutely SHOULD crack down on these programs.  But not through some "bar exam".  Why can't the national unions fight in Congress to get rid of these terrible programs? Where was the AFT when Teach for America was pushing through changes in the “highly qualified teacher” stipulation in NCLB? Let's stand up to Teach for America, the University of Phoenix, and all the other programs placing unprepared teachers in our neediest classrooms.  

 I do see how, as Dana Goldstein points out , it sounds like Ms. Weingarten and the AFT were trying to shift some of the focus off the "bad teacher" in the classroom rhetoric by honing in on increasing standards at the front end of the process.  But--this is all still within the conversation of improving education through improving teachers themselves.  This move affirms the idea that we need higher entry standards for teacher preparation because our current batch of teachers is simply not good enough. 

And I refuse to participate in that conversation anymore. 

It’s time to change the conversation.  Listen to any EdReformer give a speech. Inevitably, they will slip in the pressing need to "put a great teacher in every classroom" or some variation.  Think about what that rhetoric means and assumes.  Instead of the bizarre, meritocratic, elitist, "best and brightest" rhetoric trying to put the magical "best people" in the classroom, let's change the conversation from talk of great teachERS to great teachING.    A focus on great teachING necessarily opens the conversation away from individual Super-Teachers and acknowledges that great teachING requires supportive teaching environments, training, experience, and can always be improved.  Discussing great teachING highlights the inequities between schools and districts such as class size, resources, support services, work load, time for collaboration/planning, and all the other factors that contribute to what a teacher is able to do in her classroom.  It also acknowledges the obstacles presented to great teachING from the effects of poverty.

Innately "Great" or Learned Professional Knowledge?

The mythical "great teachER" is innately and immediately ready to work miracles in the classroom.  Little training and experience are necessary as long as that person is the "right kind of person".  A quality candidate does not need more than the five weeks of preparation Teach for America provides.  The assumption is that proper screening in the application process is enough, and the rest can be learned "on the job".  Nevermind that that experimentation is on someone's precious child.  To TFA, that parent should be grateful their child has exposure to such a quality human being.  The great teachER conversation presupposes that there is no professional body of knowledge to be learned, pondered, or practiced, just specific character qualities to be screened for

Great teachING, on the other hand, is a skill that must be developed over time and with guidance and care.  TeachING can be improved, it not some static state of being.  And in this context, preparation, training, and experience matter dramatically. By the way, great teachING can never be demonstrated through a rigorous exam, but rather must be observed and nurtured on an individual mentor/mentee basis.  A strong basis in theory and extensive student teaching experiences are necessary for great teachING, because like any professional skill, it must be practiced and honed under the watchful eye of an expert.

Notice that within the conversation of great teachING, it makes sense why our successful affluent suburban schools hire teachers with Master's Degrees and Doctorates. They don't fill their schools with fresh, elite superstars with little formal training.  Affluent schools acknowledge it is preparation, experience, and teaching contexts that lead to the great teachING found in these institutions.   In addition, the teachers in affluent schools come from the same schools of education as the "failing" school in the nearby inner-city, and yet somehow those teachers succeed.  If schools of education were truly “broken”, as our own Secretary of Education contends, then schools would fail everywhere.  There is simply no evidence that our Ed Schools are doing a poor job. 

Greatness Depends

When the focus rests on the great teachER, teaching contexts truly do not matter.  A superstar teachER, can overcome any obstacle.  "Poverty is not destiny" and anyone who claims otherwise is "making excuses". The great teachER--through their high expectations and belief that all children can learn--can work miraculous transformation.  Throw in a little "grit" and "perseverance", those important innate qualities of greatness, and the achievement gap will magically disappear.

But great teachING requires teaching contexts conducive to greatness.  In this new conversation, we are suddenly free to talk about inequalities in the system.  These are not excuses, but realities.  We can acknowledge that a teacher can perform phenomenal teachING in one context and horrible teachING in another.  When classes are too large, with too many high-needs students, and few support staff or resources, we can speak the truth that the quality of the teachING will likely decrease.  To improve teachING means to take on building equitable, fully-resourced classrooms for every teacher and learner. It means creating appropriate workloads and time for collaboration/planning.  And no amount of firing and hiring of individual teachers in an unequal system will ever change that context.

We can also finally talk about poverty and the very real effects it will have on great teachING.  Poverty does not need to be a taboo word. Instead, having the conversation of great teachING opens a frank discussion about even the best teachING's limitations.

Who is "Great" Exactly?

Also in the conversation of great teachING, there is room for all kinds of teachers: people who are inspirational, brainy, athletic, artistic, from the local neighborhood or another country, from different socioeconomic backgrounds, people who possess all types of multiple intelligences.  We can be glad of this diversity, for the students we teach are just as diverse and need all kinds of people in their lives to inspire them to greatness.  This conversation also allows for the occasional normal human "bad day" without it being the end of a career.  Great teachING is not tied to a test score or a snapshot, but rather is a holistic picture of what happens in that classroom daily.  And it can always be improved.


I urge Randi Weingarten and the AFT national leadership to stop participating in the "bad teacher" conversation.  I understand wanting address the many claims by EdReformers that teacher prep is broken.  But why not highlight our best examples? Why not remind people that it’s not traditional programs producing the vast majority of unprepared teachers? Why not point the spotlight back onto the real problems in preparation like the growing number of fast-track alternative programs and how some traditional programs have watered down their own programs to compete?    

Or better yet, why engage in the “bad teachER” conversation at all?  End the witch hunts.  Focus the conversation on how to improve teachING.  It is a much fuller, more inclusive, and more helpful conversation to have.